Nina Raine’s Tribes, directed by David Cromer, is an interesting exploration of deafness, its world, its nuances, in a dysfunctional family.
Central is a deaf, lip-reading son (the excellent Russell Harvard) who never learned to sign; his parents (a blustering, overwrought, overbearing Jeff Perry and the sensitive Mare Winningham), his repressed sister who wants to be an opera singer (Gayle Rankin), and his (ultimately) border-line psychotic brother (Will Brill). He meets a girl (the totally engaging Susan Pourfar) who is losing her hearing. This is the most irritating family ever, with phony intellectualism pouring out of the father and the brother in a rapid naturalistic style that interferes with communication. Brill’s mentally ill brother is the noisiest, most annoying character in town, and the sturm und drang from him and the father, is repellant. These are not people I want to spend time with.
And I wonder why some contemporary writers feel that “fucking” should be their major adjective. But when Harvard and Pourfar are alone communicating, it’s a different, quite engaging, play, and we learn a lot about the world of the non-hearing.
The play is beautifully produced, except for some poor lighting choices by designer Keith Parham, who a couple of times has the stage very dimly lit while Harvard is supposed to be reading lips. The set by Scott Pask and projections by Jeff Sugg are fine enhancers of the action. There are hints of some possibly criminal action by the lip-reader, but they are obscure, and I heard two groups of audience members trying to figure it out, and then agreeing he had lied in court about what he lip-read. So it’s a flawed evening, but one with enough meat on its bones, fascinating hand-signing, and a few solid performances, to make me glad I didn’t leave at intermission.